Humanities Computing Unit - Oxford University
Oxford University's Humanities Computing Unit has recently added a formal development component to its activities in Humanities Computing. The Humanities Computing Development Team works in innovative partnerships with members of the humanities faculties to develop new teaching and research resources for use both within and without the University. This is a new approach to the integration of IT into the University's activities and one which presents interesting and very particular challenges to the working process of the staff of the HCU, and expects a great deal of flexible working on the part of the academic staff. This paper outlines the background to the new Team, the needs within the University that it aims to meet, reports on the major issues which have emerged in its first nine months of operation, and makes some recommendations for the future.
In parallel with its support, training and information dissemination activities which have been described by Grazyna Cooper, the Humanities Computing Unit also has a history of cutting-edge development activities; most recently this has included the Virtual Seminars for Teaching Literature Project (Lee, 1998). These projects have all had successful outcomes and produced academically-rigorous research and teaching materials which have been much used. However, these projects have occurred on an ad-hoc basis and according to the particular research interests of the HCU, but have generally had little involvement from the other departments and faculties of the university, and thus have impacted little upon the teaching and research activities.
It can seem ironic that whilst the HCU contains centres of national and international expertise in the use of technology for research and teaching, these centres have had only a limited impact on the University itself. Whilst the OTA, CTI Centre and CHC can offer advice and direction to those with an interest in implementing IT into their teaching or research, they do not have the resources to carry out this implementation, or to employ additional staff for short-term development projects. Funding from IT components of grants has often gone to specialists outside the university. It was therefore proposed that a new element should be added to the existing work of the HCU, to bring together the expertise of grant-funded components like the Oxford Text Archive and the Computers in Teaching Initiative Centre and the local expertise of the Centre for Humanities Computing, with project-based development.
Many other institutions have already encouraged a higher level of IT integration into research and teaching with the provision of centralised group of dedicated staff who are responsible for specialist technical advice and development activities. These include the Technology and Teaching Initiative at the University of Virginia; the Education Technology Services at Penn State University; Brown University's Scholarly Technology Group, and McMaster University's Humanities Computing Centre amongst others. These initiatives operate on various levels of formal collaboration and different funding models, each of which has experience to offer to a new venture such as that which we proposed.
Survey of IT Activity in the Humanities
Oxford University is rich in primary and secondary resources, and in high levels of scholarly activity in research and teaching. In digital resource development and use there are also pockets of intensive activity but the idiosyncratic and highly distributed structure of the University means that this activity is not communicated or disseminated as much as it could be, particularly in the humanities where teaching tends to be located within colleges rather than faculties. The University Computing Services decided to explore how much current activity there was by carrying out a paper-based survey of the two thousand humanities staff in February 1998. The survey asked the staff to present their views and experiences of using of IT in research and teaching.
146 valid questionnaires were returned and provided some interesting results. 95 per cent of those staff are currently using IT in their research, and 56 per cent are currently using IT as part of their undergraduate teaching. Responses indicated that most respondents would like to expand their current IT use into new areas, but this is not currently possible due to lack of time (cited by over 90 per cent) and training (cited by over 60 per cent). The activities of the CHC are clearly much needed, despite the last seven years of successful training events.
A Humanities Computing Development Team
The second section of the survey dealt with a proposal that a Humanities Computing Development Team (HCDT) should be set up. This suggestion came about because of a lack which has long been perceived within the HCU. All the ingredients for successful IT-based humanities projects are present in Oxford: dedicated staff; high-quality collections of resources; expertise. However, the lack of collaboration between individual academics, faculties and the centres of expertise such as the HCU have meant that high-level activity is not as widespread as it could be. The HCDT should be able to work more closely, and for longer periods of time, with Oxford academic staff in the development of collaborative projects where academic content should be selected and created by the academic partner, and decisions about the technical structure of the project should be made by the HCDT. This model drew upon similar programmes in a number of institutions as described above, but in particular sought advice from the University of Virginia's Technology and Teaching Initiative (Thomas, 1997).
Collaborative academic activities are traditionally not widespread within the humanities and this is as true at Oxford as anywhere else. We were unsure how positive the response would be that academics should play a part in these highly collaborative ventures. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, that 65 per cent of respondents indicated that they would be willing to work on a collaborative project with the HCDT in the future and, in fact, 45 projects were suggested for development. The scope of these projects ranged enormously in detail and in ambition, from a simple 'put course materials and reading lists onto the Web' to complex three-dimensional simulations of archaeological data, over a space and time continuum. They also crossed the broad spectrum of humanities faculties which the HCU aims to serve: modern languages, English language and literature, history, archaeology, classics, philosophy, but also law, environmental studies, and anthropology.
Projects for 1998-9
The positive responses were sufficient to convince the Computing Services that the HCDT would provide a much needed service, and funds were allocated to a Team for one year, with plans to begin operation in autumn 1998. We now had to confront the issue of convincing academic staff that the initiation of a collaborative project with the HCDT would be a good use of their (limited) time. A formal call for project proposals was issued with a comprehensive project application form, and resulted in twelve complete project proposals from which the first round of projects were selected. The project selection was carried out in consultation with the University's Committee for Computing in the Arts (CCA), which oversees the activities of the HCU. The committee is made up of eleven representatives from the University arts and humanities faculties and thus plays a valuable role as a bridge between the HCU, the faculties and the University's high-level IT committee. Selection was based on a number of factors: potential breadth of use; commitment to the project; realistic and well thought-out goals; and a 'start-up' factor of how quickly work could begin upon the project. From these, four projects were selected and have run from October 1998 to March 1999.
Lessons Learned During 1998-9
Issues which have emerged so far have been the question of continued funding of our activities; the conflict between the research and teaching interests of individual academics, and the faculty committees to whom they report; the lack of experience in building IT development costs into research grant applications; the ongoing support and upgrading of IT-based services; the distribution of labour involved in an IT project between academic content, design and development. These issues will be evaluated at the end of the first six months of operation (in March 1999) and will be discussed in some depth in this paper.
Three of the projects undertaken by the HCDT during their first few months were the Database for the Archaeology 'Hillforts of the Ridgeway' project, online learning materials for Chinese, and the Theology faculty digital library project. These projects presented very different technical and pedagogic challenges which will be discussed in this paper. Crucially, the three projects also required us to be work within three different 'constellations' of project partners, consisting of HCDT - academic - faculty - other partners which shaped the demands and pressures of the projects.
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